Book Review: Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim

Genre : YA Fantasy / Romance
Date Published : July 9, 2019

Publisher : Knopf Books for Young Readers

Hello! This week I’m trying out a slightly different review format. Writing book synopses always gives me major anxiety, so this week I’m starting out with the synopsis provided by the publisher, then jumping straight into my review!

Maia Tamarin dreams of becoming the greatest tailor in the land, but as a girl, the best she can hope for is to marry well. When a royal messenger summons her ailing father, once a tailor of renown, to court, Maia poses as a boy and takes his place. She knows her life is forfeit if her secret is discovered, but she’ll take that risk to achieve her dream and save her family from ruin. There’s just one catch: Maia is one of twelve tailors vying for the job.

This book was a delight to read. It is beautifully written, inventive, and so lush – when I was reading, I felt like I was awash in the vibrant colors, fabrics, and magic that Lim fills this book with. While at times I had a hard time staying invested in the story, I found myself thinking that if I was younger I probably would have liked it a lot more. But overall, it was an enjoyable and gorgeous read.

I really love how much time Lim spends on introducing us to Maia’s family and home life. This is so central to who Maia is as a character, and it really helped me understand who she was and why she was so motivated to become the imperial tailor. Maia is also just a great MC – she’s passionate and determined, but also very much a regular teenage girl, and I loved the balance of this throughout the book. She felt like such a real character, and it was wonderful watching her grow!

I also LOVED Edan and Lady Sarnai, and I’m very excited to see them fleshed out a bit more in the sequel! Edan went from being the snarky sorcerer to the charming love interest in the blink of an eye, and even though there’s a 500+ year age difference, it somehow works. Lady Sarnai has a lot of room to grow in the sequel, and I can’t wait for Lim to give us a closer look into Lady Sarnai’s magic-impervious mind! Edan and Lady Sarnai’s (very different) approaches to magic were very exciting to read, and I’m intrigued to see where Maia ends up falling on the Is Magic Good or Bad? spectrum in the next book.

In addition to the characters, I also just really adored the plot – I am a SUCKER for Project Runway, and so having the first half of the book consist of a series of high-stakes design challenges was so delightful! There is a slight disconnect between the first half of the book (the design challenges) and the second half (the quest for the sun, moon, and stars), but overall these choices kept the plot moving forward and the story interesting! There were also some very unexpected plot twists towards the end that made me very excited for the next book – I can’t wait to see what happens next with Maia (and Edan!!).

As much as I enjoyed Spin the Dawn, there were two major things in the book that I found a bit off-putting:

  1. Maia posing as a boy. I am a HUGE FAN on cross-dressing tropes (especially in historical fiction). But – and this may just be me – I am always severely disappointed when there is zero romantic tension caused by said cross-dressing. Spin the Dawn doesn’t shy away from sex/romance, which is why I was so disappointed that there was not an ounce of sexual tension between her or another character while she was posing as Keton. (There is a very brief moment with a maid, but she doesn’t play a major role and it’s played off as a silly interaction). If you’re going to have your MC cross-dress, at least play around with sexuality? A lil bit? Instead of Maia’s relationships becoming more interesting/complex because of her cross-dressing, the book seemed to just reinforce heteronormativity and it left me feeling a bit disappointed.
  2. Maia pretending to have a disability. This was a major yikes for me. It didn’t seem necessary to the plot or characters. This left a bad taste in my mouth throughout the story, and I wish it hadn’t been there at all.

Overall, Spin the Dawn is a strong first book. I hope, going forward, Lim does more interesting things with Maia’s crossdressing and does something to address the cringe-worthy ableism. But, ultimately, I think Elizabeth Lim has a really creative world and interesting set of characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us in the sequel, Unravel the Dusk.

My rating:

7 “Make it Work” Moments out of 10

ARC Review: Shatter the Sky by Rebecca Kim Wells

Genre : YA Fantasy
Publication Date : July 30, 2019
Publisher : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Somehow, 2019 has gone from Hot Girl Summer to Hot Dragon Summer. I don’t know HOW it happened, but at the start of 2019 I very firmly Did Not Like Dragons and yet, here I am, seven months into the year, with 80% of the books I’ve read having involved a scaly flying fire-breather in some capacity. And honestly – I kind of love it. (Thank you NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the ARC!).

Dragons lie at the heart of Rebecca Kim Wells’ debut novel Shatter the Sky. The story opens in the mountains of Ilvera with Maren and Kaia, childhood sweethearts. Ilvera, once the land of the dragons, has been reduced to a shadow of its former glory ever since the emperor invaded and stole the dragons away. Kaia, the more bold and daring of the two, has grand plans of leaving Ilvera to travel the world. Maren, less certain of adventures, is reluctantly resigned to follow the love of her life wherever she goes. All of this changes, however, when the emperor’s band of Aurati come to Ilvera and steal Kaia away. Maren, usually timid and cautious, decides to steal a dragon from the emperor and use it to break Kaia out of the mysterious city of Lumina where she is imprisoned.

I really and truly adored the world of this story – Wells does a brilliant job at making her universe seem real and lived-in. I particularly loved all the small details of Ilvera culture, especially the focus on music and its connection to dragons. I was also super intrigued by the idea of the Aromatory and the use of condensed scents to control and communicate with dragons. Unique details like this are sprinkled throughout the book, keeping me interested and wanting to learn more and more about the characters and the world they live in. I can’t wait to learn more about the Aurati and the emperor going forward – Wells just touches the surface of these subjects in this first book, and I know things are going to get wild in the sequel!

Maren’s journey and character arc was such a delight to read, and rightly my favorite part of this book. She went from timid and cautious to fierce and independent in the span of 300 pages – and I believed every moment of it. Watching her become more and more self-confident throughout the book was so beautiful (I particularly loved all the scenes at the dragon training academy!). I can’t wait to see how her character continues to develop and grow moving forward, especially in relation to other characters like Kaia and Sev!

Shatter the Sky is 100% the kind of book I wish I’d had in middle school and high school – it has passionate and resourceful young women, beautiful world-building, DRAGONS, and of course a totally amazing and earnest love story between two girls (and a possible love triangle with a handsome prince???). Basically, this is everything I ever wanted as a kid, and I’m so delighted that young readers have access to books like this now! If you love amazingly queer YA fantasy, pre-order it now – we need to support more fantastic diverse fiction like this!!

P.S. ALSO OK I don’t know if Rebecca Kim Wells is familiar with Avatar: The Last Airbender but there was a scene involving a cabbage merchant that had me laughing OUT LOUD for way longer than was necessary…….so if you’re an A:TLA fan, keep an eye out for that lol

10 Angry Bisexual Dragon-Stealing Teenagers out of 10

May Bookshelf

It’s MAAAAAAY! Here are all the amazing and delicious books we are reading this month.

Sara:

  1. Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell – Out on May 14th, Karen Russell’s new book of short stories looks like it will be just as brilliant as her other works! Seriously, if you’ve never read anything by Karen Russell, you need to change that asap. Her prose is vivid, funny, and never what you expect. I’ve loved everything she’s written so far, and I am beyond excited to read her new short stories!
  2. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal – The first installment of Faizal’s Sands of Arawiya also debuts on May 14th, following the stories of two characters, Zafira and Nasir, who are both legends throughout the kingdom, though neither of them wants to be. Things promise to get complicated when Zafira and Nasir are sent on the same quest to retrieve and special artifact – with Nasir instructed to kill Zafira.
  3. Captain America, Vol. 1: Winter in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu – In celebration of Avengers: Endgame releasing a little over a week ago (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything), I thought adding a comic to my bookshelf for this month would be fitting. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of works like The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and a series of Black Panther comics, takes Steve Rogers and places him in the aftermath of Hydra’s takeover of the nation. The government doesn’t seem to trust Cap anymore, and the feeling appears to be mutual. I can’t wait to start reading this new installment in Cap’s story!
  4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – With the new TV series airing at the end of this month, I figured I should re-read the amazing book it is based off of. Basically, an angel and a demon work together to stop the anti-christ from starting the apocalypse. If you haven’t read Good Omens already, get your hands on a copy immediately!!! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I promise you will love every second of it.
  5. Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends edited by Paula Guran – Once again out on May 14th (I’m going to buy SO MANY books that day), this anthology collects stories from authors like Ken Liu, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Lecki that reinvent classic myths and legends and place them in a modern setting! That idea in itself is more than enough to get me interested!

Emory:

  1. The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – I get easily overwhelmed by epic fantasies, but this one is high on my list!! Queer protagonists, warrior ladies, divine empresses, and of course, the tagline: Even gods can be slain…
  2. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – This book has been popping up all over my timeline lately! A very large book that I probably won’t get to until the summer, but it’s on my buying list now! Another great queer read ~ one of my friends called it a feminist takeover of the epic fantasy genre (looking at you, GoT).
  3. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan – Already a New York Times Bestseller – and written by an OHIOAN!!!! A bloody fairytale-inspired read. Can’t wait to get my hands on this gorgeous book!
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – This book was a birthday present from Sara (THANK YOU!). After reading Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen in the span of a week, I needed more Regency fantasy!
  5. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang – My very first read for Netgalley! I’m taking The Poppy War with me this week (I’m halfway through it right now and it’s so goddamn funny and bloody and adorable and messed up and I can’t wait for the sequel!).

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Date Published : September 29, 2015
Publisher : Henry Holt and Company

Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows (the first in a duology) was lended to me by Emory when she came down to visit in February, because, as she put it many times, “You’re going to love it!” (And spoiler alert, I 100% did). Reading Six of Crows made me so grateful that Emory and I started this blog, because I honestly don’t know when I would I have read the book if we didn’t. When she initially lent it to me, I was still in my spring semester of classes, then after that I started a new job and internship, and I think if I didn’t have a deadline to stick to, I wouldn’t have been motivated to pick up a book and read it. But once I picked up Six of Crows, I didn’t want to put it down, and I sped through it in a span of four days and already want to read it again!

When I first started the book and found out that it was told through a total of six different viewpoints (with the opening and closing chapters being told through the POV of two minor characters) I did have an “oh no” moment, because getting into the minds of even more than two characters can sometimes be difficult. But Bardugo more than pulls it off, and utilizes the shifting POV to show that characters are not only keeping secrets from each other, but from the reader as well. And what is even more impressive is that I found myself equally invested in everyone’s chapters, never wanting to speed through one character’s chapter to skip to the next one (which I often find myself doing in multiple POV books).

The six main characters are made of up Kaz, an infamous thief known as Dirtyhands, Inej, a spy who is known as “The Wraith” because of her incredible stealth, Wylan, the rich kid of the group who also has impressive engineering skills, Jesper, a sharpshooter who spends a lot of time gambling or flirting with Wylan, Nina, a Heartrender in the Grisha army, and Matthias, a Grisha hunter (who, you know, of course has a crush on Nina). It’s an eclectic and diverse group, and Bardugo not only includes LGBTQ+ characters and characters with disabilities within it, but showcases them (which is something that is severely underused in the fantasy genre). I was worried going into the book that there were going to be too many characters to juggle, but Bardugo’s knowledge and love of her characters is clear throughout the entire novel, making it easy for a reader to care about the characters just as much.

This group of six criminals are pulled into a plot that sets up a classic heist story that I am 100% on board for. There a secrets and betrayals and plot twists, but also banter and romance and action, and none of it ever felt overwhelming or unnecessary, because Bardugo goes to great lengths to give each character depth and a backstory that explains their actions. What’s even more impressive is how amoral all of the characters are, and yet, you still care about them! And the prose is just as good as the plot – Bardugo is a master storyteller, and I was honestly blown away by this book in almost every aspect.

“Nina made herself face them. She had her reasons, but did they matter? And who were they to judge her? She straightened her spine, lifted her chin. She was a member of the Dregs, an employee of the White Rose, and occasionally a foolish girl, but before anything else she was a Grisha and a soldier.”

Chapter 30, page 244

It’s almost hard for me to pick a favorite character, but I have to say that Nina was the standout for me (with Kaz and Inej close behind). While her storyline did revolve around romance a little too much for my taste at times, Nina is still the character I wanted to follow into another adventure after finishing the book. She’s complex and she’s tough and, as the above quote shows, she can also be “a foolish girl” sometimes. She’s also one of the funnier characters in the book, with lines that had me laughing out loud. Her love of food (especially waffles!) and her terrible singing voice were additional traits that made her super relatable to me. It was so refreshing to meet a character that is made up of all of these things, because it made her feel incredibly real. I definitely wouldn’t complain if Bardugo were to do a spin-off with Nina as the main character!

Six of Crows technically takes place in the same world as Bardugo’s Grishaverse books, but in a different time frame and location, so it can be read as a standalone. There were a few worldbuilding details and language/vocabulary that I was confused by, but overall you don’t need to be familiar with Bardugo’s other works to love this one. And I did love it! When a book has a big, dysfunctional group of amazing characters going on one big adventure together – there’s nothing that hooks me faster! I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, Crooked Kingdom (Hey, Emory, mail it to me!!! Lol).

My rating:

9 crows out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo

Genre : Fantasy, Young Adult
Date Published : January 29, 2019
Publisher : Macmillan

I first heard of Leigh Bardugo when I attended the amazing Sirens conference in October 2018. Bardugo was one of four amazing keynote speakers at the conference, and I immediately fell for this extremely witty, badass, and inspiring writer. She talked about Mediocre White Men, the extra work that women have to put into the world in order to be seen and heard, and how it’s never too late to chase your dreams of being a writer. I was (and continue to be) blown away by her honesty and openness about the writing and publishing world ~ and if you don’t follow her already on Twitter, you absolutely should.

During Bedtime Stories on the first night of Sirens, Bardugo read an excerpt from her (then) forthcoming book, King of Scars, the first installment in the Nikolai Duology. It was HILARIOUS and cheeky and I was just so taken with her that I vowed to read everything Bardugo had ever written. In the talkback after her keynote, someone in the audience asked what order they should reader her books in if they were new to the Grishaverse. Bardugo responded: Start with Six of Crows, then Crooked Kingdom, then King of Scars – and if you’re still in love after reading those books, go back and read the Shadow & Bone Trilogy. Following her suggestion, I devoured Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in just a few weeks (they were SO GOOD!!), then waited (im)patiently for King of Scars to release in January.

Like the Six of Crows duology, King of Scars is written in shifting POVs, this time following the stories of Nikolai Lantsov (King of Ravka/monster boy), Zoya Nazyalensky (Grisha general/general badass), Nina Zenik (Waffle-lover/Death witch/My One True Love), and Isaak (Ravkan soldier/total sweetie pie). Nikolai and Zoya’s storylines flow together, following them as they work to maintain peace, stability, and power in Ravka – all while searching for a cure to the curse that turns Nikolai into a bloodthirsty monster when he falls asleep at night. Nina’s storyline is a bit disconnected (physically and thematically) from the others, following her on her mission as an undercover agent in Fjerda, where she is helping Grisha refugees flee to Ravka.

“The monster is me and I am the monster.”

Chapter 30, page 446

King of Scars is a hefty book – at just over 500 pages, it was the longest book I’d read in awhile, and it took me about two weeks to get through. I was a bit intimidated by the length at first, but Bardugo paces the novel so expertly that it never felt like it was dragging (if anything, by the time I was finished I was wishing there were even more chapters to read!). There were a few moments while reading where I wondered if it would have been better to start with Shadow & Bone trilogy first, making the moments dealing with Ravkan history and the Darkling a bit more more digestible. Luckily, Bardugo does such an excellent job at positioning us in the story that I never felt truly overwhelmed by the worldbuilding (looking at you, Lord of the Rings).

The one issue I had with King of Scars was the sometimes overwhelmingly large cast of characters (I still can’t keep the twins Tolya and Tamar straight) but each character is so lovingly constructed that, in the end, I was OK with it. Bardugo makes everything so goddamn enjoyable to read that any issues I had quickly faded into the background as I read on to find out what happened next.

We briefly met Nikolai and Zoya in Crooked Kingdom, and I loved learning more about these characters up close. Zoya is so fierce and amazing and I loved watching her come into her power and learn more about her backstory. Nikolai is such an absolute doll, and all of his interactions with Zoya were a delight to read. Even though Nina’s chapters sometimes felt separate from the story as a whole, they were probably my favorite chapters to read – they made me so nostalgic for Six of Crows! I loved watching Nina learn more about her new Grisha powers – and I am so very excited about her blossoming crush and friendship with Hanna.

The tension in Nina’s storyline was heightened by the reintroduction of Jarl Brum – the baddie from Six of Crows, and one of the most terrifying villains I’ve read in awhile (even moreso than the Darkling). I’m eager to see how Nikolai, Zoya, and Nina’s storylines converge in the next installment in the series – I can already tell it’s going to be amazing. While I wait for the second book, I definitely plan on catching up on the Shadow & Bone trilogy and then snatching up Bardugo’s new thriller Ninth House when it comes out this October!

If you’re already in love with the Grishaverse, King of Scars definitely does not disappoint. If you’re looking for a new series to read, I highly recommend starting first with Six of Crows and then working your way to King of Scars. Trust me – it is so very worth it.

My rating:

9 Ketterdam waffles out of 10

-Emory